Quick: name a federal agency. Chances are you'll think FBI. Or NASA, IRS or VA. Maybe Postal Service or EPA.
How about building managers? Unlikely. How many TV shows feature cool government real-estate clerks? No government can function without premises, hence the existence of the General Services Administration (a name seemingly calculated to avoid attention). Federal building administrators affect all Americans and have a profound impact on the states and communities where they live and work.
The nation's biggest landlord, GSA owns or leases more than 376 million square feet in some 9,600 buildings. But its influence extends far beyond the properties it directly manages. It advises the Federal Real Property Council on overseeing the government’s vast property portfolio -- more than 900,000 structures extending over more than 3 billion square feet and worth over $1.5 trillion. The Government Accountability Office classifies the federal property portfolio as a high risk for taxpayers.
GSA has a long history of dysfunction. In 1955, Fortune magazine published an article entitled "GSA: Washington's Most Durable Mess." "The big General Services Administration has long needed a big cleanup," the article stated, accusing GSA of sloppiness and waste. Since then, GSA's history has been one of consistent controversy, scandal and misperformance. In 2012, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson quit after admitting that "taxpayer dollars were squandered" on her watch, most prominently in a lavishly expensive conference. In 2008, Administrator Lurita Doan quit after being accused of inappropriate use of her position. And so on.
But GSA's worst weaknesses cannot be attributed to individuals. Its flaws represent intellectual limitations in the agency's collective mindset. These are unlikely to be fixed by replacing executives. State and local governments need to come together to advise the White House on a new GSA philosophy.
It can't happen too soon. GSA's outmoded institutional thinking wastes tax dollars, compromises federal services and fails local authorities and communities. Examples abound. New Yorkers are angry about Plum Island, a seal colony habitat GSA wants to sell to a developer. In Alameda, Calif., locals have legally blocked a GSA sale to a developer of a shoreline access road. In 2012, overriding local-government pleas, GSA deprived Kansas City of an economic asset by relocating 650 EPA workers from premises built expressly for them. The move also drew fire for promoting urban sprawl, contrary to the EPA's environmental mission.
While democracy can't please everyone, GSA is disconnected from much modern thinking on workplace economics, community context, environmental planning (which involves more than LEED-certified buildings), security and technology. Consider the planned new Department of Homeland Security and FBI headquarters, whose dinosaur-like size and cost GSA celebrates.
Regarding its biggest-ever project, DHS's Washington, D.C., campus, GSA gushes: "No matter how many superlatives one chooses to use, it is difficult to accurately depict the sheer magnitude of this development." Four and a half million square feet of workspace! Up to 14,000 occupants! One and a half million square feet of parking!
Similar rhetoric surrounds the planned new FBI headquarters, set to house as many as 11,000 workers relocated from downtown Washington. Maryland and Virginia are competing for this project and its expected economic benefits, but its poor traffic thinking is causing increasing alarm. GSA says public-transit access won't determine planning, yet this policy violates the region's development plan, posing transit, environmental and expense risks.
GSA's size obsession recalls ancient Egypt's pharaohs, whose grandeur was defined by their pyramids' immensity. But this is 21st-century America. President Obama urges more sustainable federal workplaces. And wouldn't our terrorist enemies love to see our best brains massed into convenient targets? GSA is being sued by some of its own New York City staff who argue that the agency's planned relocation of more than 400 workers from a rent-free government-owned building to six leased floors of new offices in the 104-story One World Trade Center is unsafe — "a target for terrorists" — and wasteful. (GAO has identified one of GSA's "long-standing problems" as overreliance on leasing.)
GSA needs safer, cheaper, more sustainable models, like the "telecommunity" workplace concept developed by former Defense Department planner Alan Feinberg and engineer Jay Hellman (and supported by Admiral Bill Owen, former deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Here, networks of regionally dispersed federal workplaces operate in multiple locations linked by secure fiber-optic telecommunications, avoiding huge, politically symbolic targets. Any office's disruption wouldn't necessarily paralyze an agency.
GSA claims it's hard for agencies like the FBI to work remotely. But modernization requires adjustment, and GSA is likely confusing telecommunities with telework, where some staff sometimes work alone at home. By contrast, telecommunity requires regional teams working physically together full time, linked 24/7 by the internet. It's more secure, cheaper, sustainable, traffic-light and worker-supportive than giant citadels, and offers the added benefit of allowing multiple neighborhoods to benefit from federal presences.
There's no sign that this kind of innovative thinking will stir within GSA anytime soon. This embattled, expensive and dysfunctional federal entity needs a new mission and style. State and local governments could play a large role in making that happen.
This column has been updated to clarify the amount of property GSA directly owns or leases and its advisory role in administration of the larger federal property portfolio.